Earning stature in the mostly white world of mountain running ranks pretty high on Joseph Gray’s list of accomplishments—and this is a guy who conquered the Manitou Incline in less than 18 minutes. While marathons and track events draw diverse fields, faces of color are still rare at elite mountain races: Gray is the first and only black American to make the U.S. Mountain Running Team. Gray isn’t a big fan of that “only” designation, though, so earlier this year, he used social media to find some of the best young black distance runners in Colorado. Then, with the help of sponsors such as Hoka, he visited one of the athletes, a student at Discovery Canyon Campus High School in Colorado Springs, to provide encouragement and guidance. Before Gray steps to the line at this month’s World Mountain Running Championships in Argentina, we spoke with the Colorado Springs resident about his desire for more diversity on the trails.
Name: Joseph Gray
Accomplishments: Nine-time Mountain Runner of the Year; three-time winner of the Pikes Peak Ascent.
5280: How did you first get into mountain running?
Joseph Gray: I’ve always loved cross-country [Editor’s note: Gray ran cross-country and track at Oklahoma State University], but during grad school, a friend from Colorado Springs talked me into trying mountain running. It was tough, especially coming from lower elevations. But I absolutely loved the experience.
What about it appealed to you?
I’m a curious person and love exploring. I also like a challenge. I put those together like a sandwich and found a lifelong passion.
How has being a black American in such a predominantly white sport impacted that passion?
I’ve definitely had positive and negative experiences. I’ve been the only black athlete at races in towns where I feel uncomfortable even ordering food at a restaurant. I’ve been called the N-word in a race, which was incredibly hurtful. But the good part is that when you are a minority doing something rare, you can be a shining light for people.
What barriers do runners of color face in their youth?
Growing up playing basketball, running was always used as a punishment. So initially my friends thought it was funny that I was out there jogging in these really short shorts[laughs]. It’s not normal in our culture. And I think that’s partially because we don’t have many black athletes in endurance sports to look up to. In basketball, we had role models like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. That’s important when you’re young, because somebody who looks like you often means more to you.
Is that why you decided to reach out to young black athletes this summer?
Definitely. It’s hard to reach the next generation of talented minority athletes in this sport, especially because it’s so niche. I feel it’s my duty to be visible and support them. I’d love to do more visits in the future, maybe have some kids come run in Colorado Springs. And there’s already been an impact. I’ve had a lot of kids, and even more adults, asking me questions about endurance running so they can get into it.
How has the mountain running community reacted to you speaking out about diversity?
It’s been awesome. Many athletes have told me they want to see more diversity in the sport, and I’m starting to see media cover the issue more often, too. I’m grateful others share the same sentiment as me and think changes need to be made in our media and sponsorships to reflect our diverse country.
You’re a father. Has your son influenced your campaign?
I was passionate about this issue long before I had a kid. But I hope the campaign can make a difference for him and other kids like him in the future.